We are all comprised of moments. These moments, however, are incomprehensible. They flee and scatter into the endless waste of loss, like shadows in the moonlight. Our fractal strings of being are endlessly similar and endlessly different. The desert of our existence blooms with the lost symphony of ourselves, and we move through our lives, prisoners in our own land, strangers and exiles as we frantically search for ourselves and for others on the endless river of time and memory.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” This short question from Job 38:4 marks the beginning of Terrance Malick’s controversial 138-minute film, “The Tree of Life,” which opened in the United States in limited release on May 27. The film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and concerns itself with the idea of exile, distance and incomprehension expressed in the passage from the book of Job.
Stripped down to its bare essentials, “The Tree of Life” is a coming-of-age story. Jack O’Brien, played by Sean Penn, and as a child by Hunter McCracken, is the oldest of three children. The father, played by Brad Pitt in one of the strongest performances of his career, represents the way of nature. The mother, played admirably by Jessica Chastain, represents the way of grace.
The plot sets off in medias res when Mrs. O’Brien gets a telegram stating that Jack’s younger brother R.L. is dead, presumably killed in Vietnam. The rest of the film emanates from this situation as Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien deal with their grief, and Jack, working as an architect at some unspecified time in the future, struggles with all the events of his life.
“How did you come to me? In what shape, what disguise?” whispers Mr. O’Brien toward the beginning of the film. “How did I lose you? Wandered, forgot you?” echoes Sean Penn’s Jack soon after.
The film flashes back to Jack’s childhood — suburban Middle America in the 1950s. The scenes come as flashes and snippets. Onscreen dialogue is sparse. Malick prefers voiceover, and through much of the film we can see the characters speak but cannot hear them. Instead their speech is drowned out by music. Long stretches of classical music by Gustav Mahler, Arsenije Jovanovich, Hector Berlioz, Gyorgy Ligeti, Gustav Holst, Mozart, Brahms, Smetana and others punctuate the overwhelming lack of human voices and the long stretches of silence.
Malick also includes about 20 minutes worth of cosmic and natural images depicting the formation of stars and planets, bacteria and protozoa, an embryo, and hot magma spewing from volcanoes. These give way to a scene of a dinosaur on a beach gazing out at the ocean, and promptly flash to what looks like a velociraptor taking pity on a smaller dinosaur. There are recurring images of waves crashing interposed on the sublime classical music score.
The most immediately satisfying aspect of “The Tree of Life,” comes from Emmanuel Lubezki’s masterful cinematography. On a visual level, this film is the most breathtakingly stunning in years, if not decades. Some shots are so surreally penetrating that they plumb the deepest levels of the soul and evoke feelings beyond the realm of human understanding. Lubezki’s camera work and Malick’s direction has the potential to change the way movies are made.
In spite of its supreme visual beauty, “The Tree of Life,” is not an entertaining film, though it does have some funny moments, in fact, it is hardly a film at all in the conventional sense.
Malick is not a filmmaker. Rather, he is a poet-philosopher who happens to use film as his medium. This is his greatest asset, and his greatest failing.
Malick’s visual poetry is best understood when viewed from outside the world of cinema. “The Tree of Life” holds many emotional and philosophical ideas in common with “Look Homeward, Angel,” by American novelist Thomas Wolfe. In the book, Wolfe tells a similar coming-of-age story, albeit more conventional in nature, and Wolfe’s language is as poetic and elevated as Malick’s images.
“Naked and alone we came into exile,” Wolfe writes. “In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face … Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? … Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? … O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.”
Unfortunately, many people will not choose to see “The Tree of Life,” because its dense and inaccessible structure will make all moviegoers want to get up and leave after about 30 minutes. Its narrative flows at the pace of tar and molasses, but that is precisely what makes it great. Malick’s film teeters on the precipice of creation, it stands between the elevation of high art and the long and lonely tumble into oblivion.
Had Malick chosen to tell his story in a conventional way, the film would surely have ended up a sappy, spineless, insubstantial mess. What he gives us instead is a film that latches on to the memory of all who see it. The viewing experience is uncomfortable, but in the days after, the memory of the images and the story comes into clearer focus, rooted in the mind as a tree drinks deeply of the earth.